I fear this is going to be a long one so if settle in, buckle up and see if you can make it through this.
Ask anyone who really knows me and they'll tell you that the Western States Endurance Race has been on my bucket-list since I first started running in 2012. To be fair, when I read about it in Christopher McDougall's book 'Born to Run' it was also the first Ultra Marathon I had ever heard of. It sounded ridiculous, epic, magical and mind-blowingly difficult.
I wanted in.
The history of the event and it's place as arguably the most prestigious race in the Ultra Marathon calendar means that this race appears on pretty much everyone's 'must-do' list so I was incredibly lucky to have got in this year. My training this year has been entirely focussed on hill-work and strengthening my legs for the battering they would take during the race with 19,000ft ascent and 22,000ft descent over the 100 miles.
The reality was that I was never going to be able to truly replicate the conditions of the race - the altitude, the heat and the terrain was so different to what we have here but I pushed myself harder than in previous training periods.
5 weeks out from the race and I started to pick up niggles that developed in to an injury. My shoulder and neck locked up, my left hamstring was a constant source of pain and stopped me running entirely for a few weeks and my love of running had started to wain a lot. Quite honestly I just wanted the race to be here, to do it and then to stop for a while.
After a whole bunch of physio from Jamie over at Clockhouse Physiotherapy I was in good enough shape to take to the start line. I mean, I wasn't 100% but it was enough to be there so for that I was incredibly grateful. When I originally got my place I said I was shooting for a sub-24 hour finish but after the period of inactivity I switched this back to a 26-27hr finish.
For whatever reason, I felt supremely confident that I was going to get the finish - even after listening to some of the veterans talking in the lead up to the race that if you felt you hadn't done enough training, then you hadn't, I could still visualise myself taking the lap of Placer High School hearing my name announced over the tannoy and finishing in a blaze of wobbly glory. I feel that if you believe it you can achieve it. After the first 50 miles of a 100 mile race it really comes down to what's in your head, it's 90% mental and 10% in your head....
So after the greatness that was the build up and the free stuff you get just for showing up, the race started at 5am. This meant a 3am alarm, 30 mins of standing in the shower trying to wake up and a good 45 minutes of eating. The start is incredible. You run for all of about 12ft before hitting the first incline of the day straight up a mountain. Starting in the ski-resort of Squaw Valley means you're already at around 6,000ft before you take the 4 mile hike straight up and around the side of a mountain. 2,500ft up in that time is a delightful welcome to the race.
(Mmmmm...... 5am start)
As it was, I got to the top feeling great and ready to run back down the other side of the mountain. Over the next handful of miles I noticed one of the big differences between UK & US ultra runners. For every single little tiny patch of water or mud that we came to, our US friends near enough stop and find a way around it. Now, I appreciate that we're in for a long race and foot care is of paramount importance but seriously guys, making as much mess as possible is part of the fun! I've never seen so many people ballet dance around a 3ft patch of water.
Still, I made some good time around these sections and made it to the first aid station at 10.5 miles in good spirits. The next handful of miles became difficult as I had some footwear issues. I say 'issues' but what I really mean is my shoes quite literally fell apart. Maybe I should've avoided that water after all! I was turning my ankles repeatedly and eventually took a big tumble on an almost flat section of trail that sent my right calf in to cramp. I took a couple of minutes to recover, then continued on at a slower and more relaxed pace.
(Lyon Ridge, 10.5 Miles & feeling GOOD despite the footwear issues)
My crew - Louise my long-suffering wife, Matt & Kristin from San Francisco - had arranged to meet me at Duncan Canyon (23.8 miles) and so I was fortunately able to switch shoes there. Aid Stations at this race were just epic. Loads of people, loads of cheering loads of 'GOOD JOB!' shout outs. A proper carnival atmosphere. After switching to road shoes, I got on my way and it was shortly afterwards that I first noticed that the temperature was starting to increase. I was drinking plenty of fluid but I was struggling to eat anything so my energy levels were really dropping.
My memory of the section between 23.8 & the next time I saw my crew at 38 miles (Dusty Corners) is a little blurry. I remember I had some moments where I decided I wanted to quit as it was incredibly tough going but the knowledge that bad times would soon be replaced with good times was enough to keep me moving. My pacing was OK at this point and I knew that I was just about on course with my expected timings - the most important thing was that I had an hour or two on the cut-offs so I had plenty in the bank for later on in the race.
I was in good spirits when I hit 38 miles and my crew did a fantastic job cooling me down. Ice in the bandana and buff, ice cold flannel over the head. A little bit of food and I was off down the track again with a nice downhill/flat section traversing a mountain side. Incredible running despite the greenhouse like heat pumping out of the canyons. It was tough but I really felt like I made good work of the section to the Aid Station at 'Last Chance', this was probably my favourite part of the course as I was able to really stretch out my legs and get a good pace going.
(Happier times at 38 Miles with Matt & Kristin)
I also knew what was coming and knew that I had to make some good time during this section. After getting a bit of taping on my feet for some 'hot spots' at the aid station I left for Devil's Thumb. This really was as horrendous as it sounds. Around a mile of flat, 1.5-2 miles of down and then the mile or so up. Switch back after switch back. For 1,800ft. In heat. It took an hour to do that mile and by the time I reached the top I was absolutely spent.
The aid station at the top of Devil's Thumb was a welcome site and I took the time to have a popsicle, to cool down and to have a sit down. Frankly I was exhausted. I think I was down for 10 minutes before I decided it was time to push on, the reality being that there was no crew access here and the only way I would see them any time soon would be to push on to Michigan Bluff at Mile 55. First up though was the descent back down the other side of Devil's Thumb to El Dorado Creek at 52.9 Miles.
As I stood up from my seat though I felt a large POP behind my knee at the top of my calf. Despite my hamstring injury on my left side, this issue was on my right side. Maybe a sign that I had been favouring one side too much - I'm not so sure. Whatever, the pain was incredible and as I put weight on my foot it felt like someone was punching me in the back of the leg. Not so much fun.
Still, I had no where to go but down and I thought I might be able to run through this. Those 5.1 miles took maybe close to 2hrs as I struggled with the pain of going down down down and down a bit more but I eventually made it. Back to sitting, a large ice-pack on the back of knee and an aid station volunteering explaining that the only way out of that aid station was either on the back of a quad bike or back UP the other side of the creek to Michigan Bluff. The beauty of this was that at the next aid station my crew was waiting which would no doubt put a smile back on my face.
I'll give the volunteers that - they really try everything to keep you going! So I walked on, limping but the ups weren't so bad and I managed to do ok during this section breaking into a run from time to time. I eventually got to Michigan Bluff but massively down on my expected time and whilst I had arranged with Matt to be my pacer from Foresthill at Mile 62, I needed him from that point. Fortunately his experience meant he knew I was struggling and was already kitted up, ready to go so after a little break we plodded on.
We ran for a short time, maybe a mile or so, before I needed to walk again with those downs causing me more and more problems. The weakness was forcing me to rotate my hip and I was beginning to feel pain on the left side of my body. I expect that this new issue was more in my head than it was my body but it really got me down and by the time we eventually made it to Foresthill I didn't want to carry on.
Louise talked me round at the aid station as it seemed that a lot of the issues were in my head and after 15 or so minutes we left, walking and moving slowly. This was absolutely the right thing to do. In the build up to the race we had been told that if you can get your runner out of the aid stations at 55 & 62 miles then they will almost certainly finish the race as the hardest sections are over and the adrenaline will carry them through.
(Foresthill Aid Station Decoration)
My legs were shot to bits and I had such little energy that every step was an effort but I knew we could get on with it. We walked down to the trail but during the descent I knew that my race was over. The pain was becoming too much and we were moving at maybe 2mph most. At some point I would've been timed out and frankly I didn't want the injury to become worse and ruin both the rest of our holiday but also my career and any potential running activity in the future - even if at the time I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do less!
Ultimately it was a decision I made when I was exhausted but it was not an easy decision to make. I was gutted to do it, I really was, but the lump behind my knee gave me at least a visual reason as to why I was dropping.
We eventually all made it to Auburn (myself and Matt had to hitch a lift to Green back at Mile 79.8 Miles to meet Louise & Tia which was rather fortunate) and settled in to watch some absolute heroes finish this epic event. We almost got our own Gunhild Swanson moment (check this video) when a 72yr old made it onto the finish track with just 40 seconds of the race left but he couldn't quite make it - note he did finish the course, just not within the cutoff - and soaked up the last of the atmosphere.
(3 quarters of my fabulous crew, Tia, Matt & Kristin)
In the weeks since the race I've flipped from KNOWING I made the right decision to questioning whether I dropped too early. I've been pretty cut up about my 'failure' then realised that 3 runs in 5 weeks prior to the event and the unique conditions of the race means what I actually managed to do - 62 miles - was and is pretty bloody incredible. I learnt a huge amount about Ultra Running both in the build up and during the race. I learnt even more about myself.
I can take a ridiculous amount of punishment and am a damn sight stronger than I give myself credit for. I will also never complain about how a UK trail is 'difficult' or 'hard' again! Before the race I said that this would be my last 100 and I was even questioning whether or not I would be involved in Ultra Running at all any more. Now the dust has settled it's clear in my head that I have a lot left I want to achieve and to do.
Right now the pain in my leg is still quite extreme and I'm feeling really frustrated that I'm not running but I have to give both my body and mind time to recover fully before i start to rebuild and start again. I have plans to get stronger and to become more consistent. My training is so often stop-start that I'm never going to improve and reach my potential unless I fix certain things so it really is time to go back to the drawing board and rewrite my plans for the future.
The one thing I know more than anything is that I have to go back and do this race again. I have to go and finish the job. So that's it, for the record - I am carrying on running, I will carry on doing 100 milers to get my qualifying spot, I will one day return to the Western States and I WILL get my buckle. One day.